State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, listens to school administrators at the end of a closed-door meeting in Sequim concerning school funding. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, listens to school administrators at the end of a closed-door meeting in Sequim concerning school funding. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Legislature gives schools more money but also more earmarks

SEQUIM — Public school officials from across the North Olympic Peninsula aired their concerns about school funding during a closed-door meeting with state lawmakers in Sequim last week.

State Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, and legislative staff met with more than 20 school administrators and board members from several school districts in Clallam and Jefferson counties on Wednesday and heard concerns related to the Legislature’s fix for school funding, which the state Supreme Court ruled on Thursday met the conditions of the McCleary decision.

School officials representing most of the Peninsula districts “provided some good guidance for things we want to work on in the future, and that was really centered on school safety … technology, special ed and mental health,” Van De Wege said after the private meeting.

Van De Wege said in an email prior to the meeting he never intended for the public to know about the meeting, but opened the door a few minutes before the meeting ended.

The 2012 McCleary decision by the state Supreme Court found that the state had violated its constitution by underfunding K-12 schools.

The Legislature had been in contempt of court since 2014 for lack of progress on that ruling, and daily sanctions of $100,000 — allocated specifically for education spending — had been accruing since August 2015. The decision forced lawmakers to pour billions of dollars into the K-12 school system.

In creating parity in school funding for school districts across the state, the state Legislature limited local levies to $1.50 per $1,000 assessed valuation and significantly boosted state funding — much of which is earmarked for specific purposes. That funding is largely based on enrollment.

“They are always going to have more money than they started with,” Van De Wege said.

Van De Wege and Tharinger — who represent Legislative District 24 with Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles — each said the most recent legislation isn’t the final fix.

They said that now that they are out from under McCleary, lawmakers can now look at changes that would benefit more schools. Chapman did not attend the meeting.

How the current funding changes affect school districts across the Peninsula varies and largely depends on what current levies are set at, enrollment projections and how well the district fits in to the state’s “prototypical model.”

School officials who attended the meeting in Sequim said they were thankful the legislators heard their concerns, but said they didn’t gain information that would impact their budgets for next school year.

Every district on the Peninsula will see a boost in funding as a result of the passage of House Bill 2242 last year.

However, the money isn’t necessarily earmarked for what schools are currently funding.

Here are the situations of three Peninsula districts.

Port Angeles

Port Angeles School District (PASD) is looking at 5 percent to 8 percent cuts in each of its departments in response to the legislation. The district’s levy will be cut in half. Also, in many ares, the district is overstaffed when compared to the prototypical model.

“We are over the prototypical model in all areas,” said Chuck Lisk, assistant superintendent of PASD. “The prototypical model doesn’t work.”

He said that model would allow the district to have only one nurse and that the district wouldn’t be able to have counselors in each of its buildings. Under the new legislation, districts have to fund extra positions that their communities have said they want out of their own pockets, but many are seeing a decrease in the amount of local tax dollars that can be raised for those positions.

Starting in 2019, Port Angeles School District will be able to collect only half of the $9.1 million levy voters had approved because of the $1.50 per $1,000 valuation cap on levies that goes into effect.

The decreasing levy money is more flexible than the state funding and can be used for sports, activity transportation, after school activities and other enrichment activities. That money can’t be used for basic education.

Next year the district will see net revenue increases of about $3.26 million, after accounting for a $6.4 million boost in state funding, a $200,000 loss in federal funding and about a $3 million drop in levy funding.

Of that $3.26 million, about $2.9 million is earmarked for specific purposes such as special education, career and technical education, benefits and cost of living increases.

The Port Angeles School Board heard Thursday the district is on track to see a $300,000 gain once expenditures are included, but that doesn’t include salary increases for staff. If the district were to provide cost of living increases based on the Consumer Price Index, fund balance would drop $1 million, according to David Knechtel, director of finance and business operations for the school district.

Lisk presented about $700,000 worth of possible cuts and savings to the district and said departments are looking for more ways to save money as well.

He said he is particularly concerned about the district’s recent trend of depleting its fund balance. In fiscal year 2015-16 the district had more than $6 million in its reserves but that balance has dropped over two years to $3.2 million.

Chimacum

Chimacum School District is facing declining enrollment, which is one of Superintendent Rick Thompson’s concerns as the district prepares for the future. The district has had more than 146 withdrawals since September.

State estimates show about a $2.5 million increase in funding for Chimacum School District next year and the district’s levy is largely unaffected by the new legislation, according to state estimates.

Due to declining enrollment — and the anticipated loss in funding associated with that enrollment — the Chimcacum School Board voted in April to allow a reduction in staff and reorganization of programs.

“I think the concern for us is even if we weren’t losing enrollment, is that long-term budget viability,” Thompson said after the meeting in Sequim.

“While this year looks positive, we need to be very smart and careful about long term budgeting.”

The district is placing a $7.95 million capital improvements replacement levy in the Aug. 7 primary ballot. It would collect $1.325 million each year for six years. It is estimated to cost $.0677 per $1,000 of assessed valuation in 2018 and decrease to an estimated $0.614 per $1,000 in 2023.

Sequim

Sequim School District is largely unaffected by levy decrease. It currently collects $1.53 per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

State estimates show the district seeing a $6.5 million increase in funding next year in additional state funding.

“Because we kept our levy at a lower rate all along, it has not been such a heavy lift as other school districts are facing now,” said Jim Stoffer, Sequim School Board member.

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at [email protected].

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